Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Top 10 Movie Picks of 2008

Did you really think I was going to give up on my annual opportunity to pontificate about the arts? Here, in no particular order, are my 10 favorite [1] movies of 2008 [2]

Katyn

Visually immaculate, emotionally profound and historically insightful, Wajda's Katyn is an important work in every sense of the term - not only a reminder of one of the worst acts of genocide in human history, but a sublime cinematic work, one that deserves to rank with masterpieces like Kanal and Pokolenie. Pawel Edelman's cinematography is exquisite, Penderecki's score is as glorious as you would expect, and the final scenes of the film, with their unflinching depiction of systematic mass murder, are among the most chilling I've ever seen. But what really shines here is the way Wajda balances the human and the historic, so that his characters retain their individuality even as their small, deeply personal stories give us a sense of the times they lived in. At its best, Katyn has both the weight and the beauty of Greek tragedy - a sense of heroic sadness, of a history relentless and fatal to all who stumble in her path.

My Winnipeg


Is it a documentary? A satire? A surrealist adventure? A nostalgic homecoming? A memoir on film? Whatever it is, Guy Maddin's whimsical, lyrical and entirely hilarious film is one of the most exhilarating things I've seen on screen this year - a zany, prodigious work that is in equal parts a tribute to memory and a celebration of the imagination, and underscores how thin the line dividing those two really is. To label My Winnipeg 'experimental' would be to do it an injustice - wildly inventive as the film is, it remains true to one of cinema's oldest and most long-standing traditions: the ability of movies to bring our dreams to life.

The Pool

If whimsical and dreamlike aren't your cup of tea, then you can do no better than watch The Pool. Acutely observed and psychologically and linguistically pitch-perfect, The Pool is a work of exemplary realism - a movie that manages to portray poverty in India without falling prey to either pessimism, escapism or sentimentality, and that depicts, with unerring accuracy, the emotional contradictions that come with being under-privileged. Chris Smith's experience as a documentary film-maker has given him both an eye for detail and an ability to withhold judgment, to tell a story without weighting it down with 'meanings', and the result is a film that would have been a major achievement coming from an Indian film maker, and that, coming from an American, is nothing short of extraordinary.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

And while we're on the subject of realism...Given the amount of praise Cristian Mungiu's film has received, anything I add is going to be redundant. So I'll content myself by saying that 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days deserves every word of that praise and more.

Happy-Go-Lucky


Is it possible to be both cheerful and realistic? That question that lies at the heart of Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky. Leigh's answer to that question is a resounding yes - an answer provided both by the central character of Happy-Go-Lucky (the preternaturally optimistic Poppy), as well as by the film itself. As lives go, Poppy's is neither particularly harsh nor particularly pleasant, so that her vivacious good humour (brilliantly brought to life by Sally Hawkins) becomes a matter of pure perspective, a consequence of her personality rather than of luck. Poppy is happy because she chooses to be. And while that may sound like a childishly simple philosophy - it is - when was the last time you saw a film based on that principle?

In a sense, Happy-Go-Lucky is the anti-Naked. In Naked, Leigh gave us an indelible portrait of a witty and seemingly intelligent young man who possessed the emotional maturity of a small child and whose verbal hi-jinks were a way to disguise a deep-rooted insecurity. In Happy-Go-Lucky, he shows us a young woman who seems both trivial and naive, but whose cheerfulness, as we discover, comes not from innocence or stupidity, but from a great reserve of inner strength. It's a tribute to Leigh's genius that he gets both portraits exactly right.

Wall-E

If Happy-Go-Lucky is the anti-Naked, Wall-E is the anti-Shrek. Where Shrek took the old Walt Disney formula and added a liberal dose of cynicism and street-smartness, Wall-E restores the wide-eyed romance of the genre, but replaces its reliance on anthropomorphism with a visual realism all its own. Spectacular as Pixar's visual effects are (and they are spectacular) the true greatness of Wall-E is its complete eschewal of every trace of humanization, and of the language that goes with it. Wall-E is not a robot pretending to be a human, or a human disguised as a robot to showcase the power of animation, Wall-E IS a robot, with a robot's vocabulary (or lack thereof) and a robot's gestures, and it is a testament to the genius of the wizards at Pixar that this doesn't, in any way, compromise our ability to understand and interpret his actions. Okay, so the story gets a little overly sentimental. Okay, so the second half is fairly predictable and somewhat silly. None of that takes away from the sheer poetry (and I mean poetry) of that opening half-hour.

Whether the human species is likely to end up as a race of over-fed babies on a cruise-ship in deep space I cannot say, but I'd venture to bet that even if that happens, anyone bothering to look up the history of animation in cinema will find Wall-E listed as the movie that changed it all.

Encounters at the End of the World

I've already blogged about Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World, so I won't go over all that again. Suffice it to say that it takes a rare kind of talent to transform a set of ordinary interviews shot in the most banal way into a vision of Man's engagement with the Universe at the very edge of civilization. And that's precisely the kind of talent that Herzog has. In spades.

Boy A


2008 saw the release of two films that dealt with the theme of life after prison. The more recent one of these was an overwrought French film called Il y a longtemps que je t'aime, lifted out of poorly written mediocrity by an incredible performance from Kristin Scott Thomas (a performance so finely tuned and so haunting that it alone made the film worth watching twice, if only to catch every nuance). Personally, though, I preferred John Crowley's Boy A - the story of Jack Burridge, a young man imprisoned for the killing of a little girl when he himself was no more than a child, and who, released at 24, attempts to build a new life under an assumed identity, permanently haunted by the threat of disclosure.

What makes Boy A a superior film, in my opinion, is the way it brings Jack's vulnerability to life, his sense of living on a knife-edge, always waiting for things to go wrong. And it's not just the past, and the possibility of that past being discovered, that haunts Jack; Jack is fragile because he's been denied normal human contact from the time he was a little boy, and to watch him experience, for the first time, the emotions we all take for granted - friendship, love, trust - is a truly heartbreaking experience. Crowley has a point or two to make about the way society treats ex-convicts, but that is largely incidental to the power of his film; his achievement in Boy A is that he makes us share the terror and suffocation that Jack lives with, makes us experience every small act of normalcy as the real victory it is, and in doing so delivers a portrait of a gentle young man trapped in impossible situation that you cannot help being moved by.

Parlez-moi de la pluie

What's this? Eight out of ten films done and not a single French film among them? Can this really be 2x3x7? you wonder. But not to fear. One of this year's most delightful films was Agnes Jaoui's Parlez-moi de la pluie (english title: Let it Rain). Compared to many of the other films on this list Parlez-moi de la pluie is modest in scope, but it combines gentle comedy, a genial insight into the foibles of human insecurity, a quietly feminist worldview and three sparkling perfomances: Jaoui herself, husband and frequent collaborator Jean-Pierre Bacri (who also co-wrote the script) and the marvellous Jamel Debbouze. What more can you ask for?

Milk


I could give you a dozen reasons why you should watch Milk. I could say that it's a fine example of the bio-pic genre - a film that delivers an authentic sense of both the personal and the political, that is intelligent on tactics and strategy without being tedious, and insightful on its main character's personal life without being invasive or exploitative. I could go on about Sean Penn's performance; a performance that serves to showcase why Penn is one of the greatest actors of his, or any, generation. I could remind you that it's the story of an inspiring civil rights leader who deserves to be remembered for both his courage and his charisma. I could claim that Van Sant is one of the finest directors at work today, and that his work with Savides is simply glorious. I could praise the ease, the tenderness and the spontaneity of the film's love scenes. And I could tell you that James Franco is really, really hot.

But true as all of that is, the reason you should, no, you must, watch Milk is that it is a moving reminder that the battle for civil rights remains to be won. That people continue to be denied the simple right to choose to live how and with whom they please because of narrow-minded bigotry and the laws it inspires. Most films about civil rights have the distance of hindsight - we watch the action on screen and we shake our heads and think, "how could people ever have been so prejudiced, so small-minded, so cruel?" What makes Milk special is that the anti-gay rhetoric in the film sounds all too familiar, all too contemporary; this is not a film about long-ago bigotry, this is a film about the kind of homophobia that continues to exist around us, and that we must continue to fight. One of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film is the one where Milk and his friends celebrate the defeat of anti-gay legislation that would have made it illegal for homosexuals to teach in California public schools; it's heartbreaking because you know that three decades later the same state and the same counties will vote Yes on Proposition 8, denying homosexuals the right to marry. It's a reminder that the freedom and equality that Harvey Milk fought for are yet to be achieved. And that's why Milk is one film you just have to watch.

Bonus Category 1: Best Film You've Never Seen

I can't resist putting in a quick plug for a Czech film called Roming which, to the best of my knowledge, was never released in the United States, and which I only got to see because I happened to catch it at the Philadelphia Film Festival. It's a light-hearted and charming film, part road-trip, part magic realist fable, that combines a gypsy's love for old-fashioned story-telling with a good-humored eye for human silliness, to produce something that seems like a light-weight Kusturica. Not, by any means, a great film, but a very good one, and one that deserves to be seen by more people.

Bonus Category 2: Great Performances

I also wanted to point to a couple of truly stand-out performances in films that didn't quite make it to this list. I've already mentioned Kristin Scott Thomas's work in Il y a longtemps que je t'amie. I also thought Melissa Leo was wonderful in Frozen River, a film that narrowly missed making it to my top 10. And then there was Heath Ledger's performance in The Dark Knight, which I've blogged about before.

Bonus Category 3: Most Unduly Praised Film of the Year

Finally, I can't help record my bewilderment over all the praise being showered on Rachel Getting Married. Okay, so Anne Hathaway's performance was better than you would expect from someone whose previous credits are limited to things like The Princess Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada. But that aside, the whole damn film was about thirty-five minutes of mediocre psychploitation drama padded out with an additional hour and a half of footage from some new age shaadi ka video. I can't remember when I've been more bored. Seriously, if you ever feel the temptation to go see this film, take my advice and go watch you're cousin's home movies of his wedding reception instead. Not only will you save the price of the ticket and make your cousin happy, you'll probably have more fun.

P.S. Happy New Year! [3]

[1] I'd say 'best' but there are too many good / promising movies that came out this year that I never managed to see - notable misses include Waltz with Bashir, The Edge of Heaven, Vicky Christina Barcelona and The Class

[2] At least some of these movies were made (and released) in 2007, but they only made it to local cinemas this year.

[3] It is, of course, fairly unlikely that the New Year will, in fact, be happy; or at least noticeably happier than any year in recent memory. Still, isn't it beautiful to think so.

That's Sir Pratchett to you

Terry Pratchett has been knighted.

Now all he has to do is stop the war in the Middle East and be made a Duke.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Nuts!

I feel sorry for Tchaikovsky. I really do. He's not a composer I'm too crazy about, but he's written some fine pieces and he certainly doesn't deserve to be reduced to the racist, sexist, nauseatingly saccharine kitsch that is the Balanchine version of the Nutcracker [1]. So here, in no particular order, are six alternate versions of the Nutcracker I would like to see:

1. Nutcracker as a drug rave

Herr Drosselmeier as a shifty pusher (he looks the part anyway) who brings Marie a bong for Christmas. Marie then proceeds to get seriously high, thus explaining the rest of the ballet: the snowflakes are cocaine, tea is tea, and the sugar plum fairy is, inevitably, the brown sugar fairy.

2. Minimalist Nutcracker

A performance of the Balanchine Nutcracker with no sets, no props and no costumes - everyone to wear plain black tights and dance on a bare stage. We'll soon see how impressive a ballet it is then.

3. The Mouse King

A performance of the Nutcracker which follows the usual script all the way to the fight scene between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King, only at that point the Mouse King kills the Nutcracker, wins Marie's Heart, and then spends the entire Second Act pillaging, looting and burning his way through the Land of Sweets, with the help of his faithful Mouse Commandos. Death to the Sugar Plum Fairy!

4. Hypothermic Nutcracker

A performance of the Nutcracker where Marie, frightened by the Mice, runs out into the snow and proceeds to freeze to her death. The entire second act consists of Marie lying at the front of the stage shivering with the cold at first, and then slowly falling into a coma, while the Balanchine version of the second act plays out behind a transparent screen and represents Marie's hallucinations while she dies. Ideally, the light behind the screen would slowly fade throughout the second act, so that by the time the pas de deux between the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Chevalier came on, the stage would be entirely dark and the audience would hear the music but see only the still form of Marie on stage.

5. Product Placement Nutcracker

A version of the Nutcracker where every dance in the second act is sponsored by, and modified to advertise, a specific Brand. So the Spanish dance becomes the Hershey's dance, the Arabian dance becomes the Starbucks dance, and so on. So much more honest.

6. The Subaltern Nutcracker

A rendering of the Nutcracker where the party scene is shown from the point of view of the serving maids. The scene opens with the stage divided into two halves - one half being the main party room (complete with presents and Christmas tree), the other being a smelly, grimy, kitchen where the household staff slaves away. The action in the 'party' half of the stage would exactly mimic the current Balanchine version, except that every time the serving maid crossed over into the kitchen area, the music would drop to half its volume and the party room would go dark.

[1] A version of which I found myself watching this afternoon - largely because it was the only ballet / opera / orchestra performance happening in the city during the holidays. It didn't help that the audience seemed to think they were at the circus rather than at a ballet and broke out into loud clapping every time anyone on stage executed a half-way difficult step. Sigh.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Outage

In Memoriam

Harold Pinter
(1930-2008)


"The power's gone."

"Again?"

"What do you mean again? When did it go before?"

"That time you were away on work. I told you."

"Oh, yes. But that must have been, let's see, four months ago now."

"Yes, but it did go."

"True. So how long was it gone that time?"

"I don't remember. Three, maybe four hours?"

"Well I hope it comes back quicker this time. It'll be dark soon."

"Oh, the dark's not so bad. Not when it comes on slowly, when you have time to get used to it. Unless you're planning to read, that is."

"But there's the match tonight. I don't want to miss that. Besides, it'll start getting cold soon."

"True."

"I wonder what it is this time. Probably a transformer or something."

"Or maybe a tree fell on a wire, caused a short circuit."

"That's not very likely. Why would a tree fall? There hasn't been a storm or anything."

"Not here there hasn't. But who knows where the electricity comes from. Besides, you don't need a storm to knock a tree down. Sometimes they just fall of old age."

"I suppose. In any case, I hope they fix it soon."

"Me too. [pause] Harry?"

"Yes dear?"

"Do you ever think what would happen if the power never came back?"

"You mean tonight?"

"No, I mean if it never came back. Ever."

"But that's absurd! Of course it'll come back. It has to."

"I suppose. It's just that you never really know, do you?"

"What? Of course you do."

"No, I mean there's always some doubt."

"No there isn't. Of course the power will come back. Have you ever heard of it not?"

"Mr. Morton says that once during the war they didn't have power for two weeks."

"Yes, but it came back after that, didn't it? And besides, that was in wartime."

"But if it can go for two weeks then it can go for two months, two years, two centuries."

"No it can't. It's not the same thing at all. What's got into you today?"

"Nothing. Sorry, I'm being silly, I know. It's just what I was thinking about the last time."

"The last time?"

"When the power went. When I was alone."

"Oh, right."

"I just kept thinking what if there was a village somewhere where the power went and never came back."

"Well, they'd contact someone wouldn't they?"

"What if they couldn't? What if with the power gone none of their phones were working?"

"Well then they'd walk to the nearest place that had power and call from there."

"But what if they didn't want to leave their homes? What if they kept hoping the power would come back?"

"Now you're just getting carried away. Just let it go. Really. [pause] Any idea how long it's been?"

"Since the power went?"

"Yes."

"Fifteen minutes maybe? Oh!"

"What?"

"I just remembered!"

"What?"

"The clothes are in the dryer."

"So?"

"So they've been sitting there all this time. I should go hang them out to dry."

"Why bother? When the power comes back you can just run the dryer."

"But who knows when the power will come back. Or whether."

"Don't start that again."

"Okay."

"It's taking them a while to fix it though, isn't it? I hope they know there's a problem. Maybe I should call someone and complain."

"Who would you call?"

"I don't know. I'll look it up in the book."

"Oh, I'm sure they know Harry. They have all sorts of instruments. And besides, someone else must have called by now."

"What if they haven't? What if everyone's assuming that someone else will call."

"Well then eventually someone else will. You sit down and take it easy. You know the doctor told you not to exert yourself."

"There's no exertion. I'm just going to make a phone call."

"No you're not. I know you. You'll call to complain and get into a fight with someone and spend the next three days sulking. You just let it be."

"Okay, okay. So how about some tea then?"

"That would be nice, wouldn't it? Only I don't know how to boil the water without the power."

"Hmm. I hadn't thought of that."

"It's frightening how dependent we are on electricity, isn't it?"

"Well, I suppose if the power really were gone for good we could start a little wood fire in the backyard and boil the water in a canteen. The way we did it when we went camping. Do you remember that?"

"Of course I do. It was lovely being out in the country like that."

"Yes it was, wasn't it? You know, I haven't thought about that for years."

"Me neither. We don't usually talk about the old days much, do we?"

"I guess we don't."

"I mean we're only talking about it now because the power's gone and there's nothing else to do."

"Well, so at least we have something to thank the outage for."

"I suppose. [pause] Harry?"

"Yes?"

"Do you believe in reincarnation?"

"In what?"

"In reincarnation. You know. Like when you die but then are born again - only this time as some other person. Or maybe not even as a person. As an animal, or insect, or something."

"Do I believe in reincarnation? I can't say I've thought about it much. Seems a bit pointless, doesn't it?"

"Pointless? You don't think it'd be wonderful to start over, to have another chance?"

"I don't see why. It's not like you'd have learnt anything. You'd just end up doing the same things again. You might even do worse. Why do you ask anyway?"

"Oh, no reason. Was just thinking about it the other day, so thought would ask you. I figured it would pass the time."

"It's been a long time, hasn't it? How long, do you know?"

"Almost an hour, I think."

"It's something serious obviously. Still, I hope they don't take too much longer. The match will be on in half an hour."

"I'm sure they'll fix it by then."

"You said last time it took four hours."

"More like three I think. And that was because it was a major breakdown. A grid failure or something. Half the city was without power."

"You know I think I'll just pop out for a minute."

"What for?"

"Just to see if other people on the street have power."

"You mean it could be just us?"

"It could be."

"I hadn't thought of that. That would be terrible."

"Yes, it would. Which is why I'm going to go out and check."

"But where will you go?"

"Not far. Just down to the bar at the corner."

"Why the bar?"

"Well, I can't exactly barge into someone's house demanding to know if they have power, can I?"

"You could just wait fifteen minutes or so. It'll be dark soon. Then we'll see the lights coming on if it's just us."

"Yes, but if it is just us the sooner we know the better."

"But I don't want you exerting yourself."

"I won't be exerting myself. I'm just going down to the street corner, for god's sake."

"What if you go and don't come back?"

"What? What are you talking about? Of course I'll come back. I'll be back before you know it."

"But it'll be dark soon and I don't want to be alone in here when it's dark."

"Look, it's a three minute walk to the corner. Tops. I'll be there and back long before it gets dark."

"But what if you're not?"

"Why wouldn't I be? You're just being silly."

"But Harry"

"Look, I'm going now. I'll see you in a bit."

"Harry"

"Stop worrying, will you? Bye."

"Harry, don't go. Please. Harry? Harry?"

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

An Act of Mercy

Since it is Christmas...

I'd barely entered the stable when I felt it. A sense of dread so palpable, so oppressive, that even the warmth of being indoors seemed too faint a compensation. It was the sound of his breathing mostly, that uneasy pant, quick and shallow, that is the sure sign of an animal in distress. The others heard it too - they stood in their stalls with their heads raised and their bodies held rigid, as though seeking the scent of the predator, Death.

He was in the last stall on the right. He didn't look good. He was trembling, his head was drooping low, he could barely stand. I went through the usual checks - temperature, reflexes, heartbeat - looking for some chance of recovery, some sign of hope. There was none. He was done for. I patted him gently on the flank, to reassure him, then stepped out to meet his owner.

"I'm sorry, sir. There's nothing more I can do."

"You mean it's too late?"

"I'm afraid so."

"I see. It's my fault for not calling you sooner, isn't it?"

"Not really, sir. I doubt it would have helped."

"Only we're so busy this time of the year."

"I understand, sir. It's no one's fault."

"So there's really nothing you can do?"

"I'm afraid not, sir. The best thing now is put him out of his misery. As you can see, he's in a lot of pain."

"Yes, yes, of course. It's just....well, I'm going to miss him, you know. We've been together such a long time, been through so much together. I guess I just never thought it would come to this. I suppose I knew it would happen, but I just didn't think about it."

He turned away from me then, stepped over to the stall, cradled that triangular face against his own. They stood there like that for a moment, master and beast, his hands running over the floppy ears, the wide brow, the red, red nose.

Then he stepped back.

"You'll do it now?"

I nodded.

"And you'll make sure it's painless?"

"Of course. He won't feel a thing."

"All right then. Go ahead. Only, I'm going to go back to the house, if you don't mind. I don't think I can bear to watch."

"I understand, sir. I'll join you when it's done. It won't take long. And sir? I'm truly sorry."

I watched him walk away then, his body half bent as though under some invisible weight. I waited till the door shut behind him before I took the spike and hammer from my bag, placed the point of the spike between those two limpid eyes. "It's okay, boy", I said, as the deer stirred in panic, "it's okay."

Then I drove the spike home.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Theory / Literature

Reading Sarraute this evening, and nodding vigorously in agreement, I find myself wondering what it is I'm agreeing with.

Do I respond to Sarraute's ideas because they echo my own hazy convictions as a reader and a writer? Or is it her response to writing that seems to echo my own, and convinces me to accept her her ideas?

Is there a difference? How can one tell?

And if there is a difference, and one can tell, which is the greater achievement?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Encore! Encore!

Alfred Brendel has retired.

We will miss you, maestro.


P.S. I can't help wishing that Brendel had waited four more days and given his final performance on Dec 22, exactly 200 years after another great musician gave his final performance as a pianist, also in Vienna.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

10 literary adaptations I'd like to see

Not content with turning Benjamin Button into a chick flick with Brad Pitt, Hollywood is now apparently setting its sights on The Great Gatsby (again!), with a new version in the works that will be directed by, of all people, Baz Luhrmann - that master of nuanced emotion and hidden yearning. Tchah!

I suppose it's too much to ask that the movie biz leave books alone entirely (or at least leave good books alone; there are plenty of books that could only improve with cinematic adaptation - all of Coelho, for instance, or Adiga's White Tiger), but if we have to be subjected to movie versions of literary classics, can we at least have them made by the right people. I could probably live with an Ang Lee version of Gatsby, but the very idea of Luhrmann getting his hammy hands on it makes me shudder. What will they come up with next? A Tarantino version of The Golden Bowl? ("This may be a Hattori Hanzo sword, my dear, but to accept it would be to blunt the sharpness of our affection.""Or make our silence more precise.""Is that what you want?""It's what I can afford.").

So just to help Hollywood out, here, in no particular order, is my list of top 10 book to screen adaptations I'd like to see:

1. A Jim Jarmusch version of Waiting for Godot, with Bill Murray and Steve Buscemi as Vladimir and Estragon.

2. A Coen Brothers production of, oh, pretty much anything by Faulkner (say Sartoris) starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones

3. A Wong Kar Wai version of Norwegian Wood, ideally cast with newcomers, I guess, though I wouldn't mind seeing Faye Wong as Midori.

4. A Julie Taymor adaptation of Howl.

5. A Mike Nichols version of Herzog with Jack Nicholson in the lead role

6. A Werner Herzog version of the Hunger Artist with Christian Bale in the lead role.

7. A David Lynch adaptation of The Magician's Nephew (the cast doesn't really matter, so long as there's a cameo appearance by David Bowie)

8. A Gus Van Sant version of Catcher in the Rye

9. Almodovar directing pretty much anything by Jane Austen, with Javier Bardem as Darcy / Knightley / Wentworth.

10. A Woody Allen adaptation of Ulysses set on the Upper East Side, with anyone but Scarlett Johansson playing Molly Bloom (I'd pick Frances McDormand, but that's just me)

P.S. List of my 10 favorite movies of the year coming soon.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Proactive

Every time someone gets close to her she holds back, keeps her distance. Waiting for them to turn against her, waiting for it to go wrong.

It always does.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Truth vs. Fiction # 29

And as further proof that truth is more literary than fiction, can you imagine a better name for a Wall Street shyster who makes off with other people's money than Bernie L. Madoff?

Apparently DFW didn't just make it to Heaven - he took over.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Shoe Drops

"Mr. Maliki’s security agents jumped on the man, wrestled him to the floor and hustled him out of the room. They kicked him and beat him until “he was crying like a woman,” said Mohammed Taher, a reporter for Afaq, a television station owned by the Dawa Party, which is led by Mr. Maliki. Mr. Zaidi was then detained on unspecified charges.

[President Bush] called the incident a sign of democracy, saying, “That’s what people do in a free society, draw attention to themselves,” as the man’s screaming could be heard outside."

- The New York Times, Dec 14, 2008


Sometimes real life can outdo the best fiction.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Source

Or: I work at the language as a spring of water works at the rock, to find a course, and so, blindly. In this I am not a maker of things, but, if maker, a maker of a way. For the way in itself . It is well enuf to speak of water's having its destination in the sea, and so to picture almost a knowing in the course; but the sea is only the end of ways - could the stream find a further course, it would go on. And vast as the language is, it is no end but a resistance thru which a poem might move - as it flows or dances or puddles in time - making it up in its going along and yet going only as it breaks the resistance of the language.

***

I write this only to explain some of the old ache of longing that revives when I apprehend again the currents of language - rushing upon their way, or in pools, vacant energies below meaning, hidden to our purposes. Often, reading or writing, the fullest pain returns, and I see or hear or almost know a pure element of clearness, an utter movement, an absolute rush along its own way, that makes of even the words under my pen a foreign element that I may crave - as for kingdom or salvation or freedom - but never know.
- Robert Duncan, 'Source' from Letters [1953-56] (included in Selected Poems, New Direction 1997)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

As though someone asked... [Faraz V]

Aur tere shahar se jab rakhte-safar baandh liya
Daro-deevar pe hasrat ki nazar kya karte
Chaand kajlai hui shaam ki dahleez pe tha
Us ghadi bhi tere majboor safar kya karte
Dil thahar jaane ko kahta tha magar kya karte

"Hamne jab vaadi-e-gurbat mein kadam rakkha tha"
Jis tarah yaad-e-vatan aaiee thi samjhane ko
Kuch isi tarah ki kaifiyat-e-jaan aaj bhi hai
Jis tarah koi kayamat ho guzar jane ko
Jis tarah koi kahe phir se palat aane ko

- Ahmed Faraz


Translation (mine):

And being prepared to depart from your city
What had we to do with the sight of these rooms?
A mascaraed night, the moon at her threshold;
At that hour, journey-bound, what could we do?
Though our hearts said stay, what could we do?

"When we had stepped into the valley of exile"
And the memory of home came back to explain.
My condition today seems almost the same -
As though some calamity were about to pass
As though someone asked that I return again.


Note: Line 6 and 7 are from Bismil - the original reads: "hamne jab vaadi-e-gurbat mein kadam rakkha tha / door tak yaad-e-vatan aai thi samjhane ko". You can read the full poem here.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

In your ocean eyes

Blame Neha. Faiz is untranslatable in general, and Teri samundar aankhon mein (see original here) doubly so, but the Bilal Tanweer translation she put up was so godawful, that I figured I couldn't possibly do any worse. So here you go:

This shore of sunlight where evening sets,
where both times meet -
neither day nor night, neither now nor then -
an eternal instant, instantly fleet.
On this shore of sunlight, an instant or two,
the leaping lips,
the jingling caress,
our togetherness neither false nor true.
Why feel ashamed? Why talk of blame?
Why lie?
When this evening's sun sinks
in your ocean eyes
households shall sleep content
and the wanderer wave goodbye.

- Faiz Ahmed Faiz (translation mine)

Obviously there are a few departures from the original here - what I wanted to do was be as faithful as possible to the rhythm of Faiz's poem - its friskiness, its momentum, its rhymes and half rhymes. That's meant sacrificing accuracy here and there (and inverting the order of "Jab teri samundar aankhon mein / is shaam ka sooraj doobega"), but I quite like the result.

One serious change is the shortening of "Kis kaaran jhooti baat karo" to "Why lie?", which not only considerably shortens the line, but also makes it rhyme with the lines that follow rather than with the line immediately preceding it. An alternative line would "Why tell these lies in vain?" but that just strikes me as being unnecessarily clunky.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

BWV 1004

As everyone 'knows', I dislike children, and disapprove of any and all attempts to introduce them into the public sphere. I'm particularly critical of parents who bring their 4 /5 year olds to classical music concerts; a sub-class of quasi-criminals who, were it left up to me (though it mercifully isn't) would be shut away in a dark cell for a minimum of five years and be made to listen to six hours of ABBA everyday.

Every now and then, however, children will surprise me by turning out to be human. Last Thursday, for instance, when the 5 year old [1] sitting in front of me at a violin recital spent much of the concert with the score open on his lap, valiantly and self-importantly following along as Christian Tetzlaff scraped his way through Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin. It wasn't just that he behaved like an angel - didn't fidget, didn't start to talk loudly in the middle of a movement - it was the fact that he was so interested, that he was enjoying himself so thoroughly. It was the first time in half a decade that I've actually felt anything approaching affection for a child.

***

In the meantime, I find I'm becoming completely obsessed with the Bach pieces for solo violin - particularly with BWV 1004 (with its mesmerising Chaconne), which I've heard four different versions of in the last 8 hours alone. It's incredible how Bach can construct so compelling a conversation with a single instrument - there are entire Haydn string quartets that have less going on than the final movement of this Partita.

***

Meanwhile, if I'd ever had any doubts about being in the wrong demographic for classical music concerts, they were put to rest today. Someone in the row behind me happened to mention that it was the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, which prompted everyone else to begin sharing their personal memories of that fateful day. And I mean everyone.

I don't know if I'm going to be alive on 09/11/2068 (I kind of doubt it to be honest), but if I am I'm so going to a concert and talking about it.

The really marvellous thing is: they'll still be playing Bach.

Notes

[1] Well, he looked five. But he could have been four. Or three. Or eight. How are you supposed to tell with the little blighters anyway? It's not like you can cut them open and count the rings.

Monday, December 01, 2008

20

No one to see on the empty mountain,
only the echo of someone's voice.
Light returns to the dusky forest,
makes the dark moss shine again.

- Wang Wei
(translation mine)

Inspired by Weinberger's Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, which compiles a set of alternate versions of a four line poem by Wang Wei (you can find the full set of translations included in the main book - there are two others in the notes after the book that aren't on the site - here, along with some other translations)

The thing that struck me about the poem - and made me attempt a translation of my own (not that I could have resisted anyway) was the resonance (heh!) of the word 'echo'. Most of the translations Weinberger includes assume that the sound in line 2 is being heard directly - but an echo does not come straight to us - it goes away from us and then comes back. And that, to me, is the key to the poem - the sound moving away and returning, the light fading and brightening, the perfect doubling of reprise on reprise, so that the light hitting the moss at dusk becomes not only the 'echo' of the light hitting the moss in morning, but the echo of an echo, a figure suggesting both renewal and diminishment.

The sound of the echo returns to fill a silence that sound has vacated, the light of the evening returns to illumine what the light of morning has left dark. Each arrives unexpectedly - the light because it is time for sunset, and we are expecting darkness not light; the sound because the first line has told us that the mountain is empty, so that the sound takes us by surprise. And each bears traces of the distance it has travelled to get here - the sound is fainter, the light (surely) more dim.

Emphasizing the 'echo' makes another thing possible - it allows us to free the poem of human presence entirely. Even if we take away the annoying 'I' that older translations tend to include, we are still left, in the translations that Weinberger offers, with the speaker(s) behind the sound in line 2. Presence nibbles at the margins of the poem, threatens its serenity. But make the sound an echo, and it is possible that there really is no one there, that the sound comes from far away (and by implication, from long ago) and is heard by no one, just as there is, perhaps, no one who wanders so late in the forest to see the light shining on the moss. The entire poem rests on a sense of absence that is both intuition and premonition (what will happen when the voices fade, when the sun sets?) and the substitution of echo for voice, by making the poem lonelier, somehow enhances that effect.

I've taken a number of other liberties with the poem, of course (and since I don't speak a word of Chinese they really are liberties) - notably the choice of 'dusky' (my alternate version replaces dusky with darkened in line 3 and dark with black in line 4) and the reversal of the order within the first line, which is partly just to be different, and partly to suggest both the senses of 'no one to observe' and 'no observer' - but hey, experimenting is what this blog is all about.

Finally, just in case you think I've totally lost it, here's the other Paz version that Weinberger includes in his book, and which I think is really interesting (it's PAZ, duh!):

No se ve gente en este monte
solo se oyen, lejos, voces.
Bosque profundo. Luz poniente:
alumbra el musgo y, verde, asciende.

No people are seen on this mountain,
only voices, far off, are heard.
Deep forest. Western light:
it illuminates the moss and, green, rises.

[Translation by E. Weinberger]

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Weinberger -> Laughlin

"Their principal concerns will be to resurrect Reagan's science-fiction Star Wars defense system (against whom is unclear) and, equally terrifying, a return to Iraq. In their circles, the Gulf War is seen as a failure because it did not end with the assassination of Saddam Hussein. Bush must vindicate his father, and Cheney and Powell must vindicate themselves. On Day One of the Bush presidency, the front pages of the newspapers were already carrying stories about the buildup of "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq. The only spontaneous news, of course, is earthquakes and plane crashes; the rest is always created by someone. If the economy sinks, as it probably will, a return to Iraq will certainly be the most expedient distraction."

- Eliot Weinberger, Jan 27, 2001. from 9/12 (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003)


***

I've been growing more and more obsessed with Eliot Weinberger over the last month, even though reading the man regularly makes me feel woefully uneducated. In his 2000 collection Karmic Traces (which includes the magnificent essay 'The Falls') Weinberger includes a profile of James Laughlin, founder of New Directions and a man who, in Weinberger's words, "changed Gertrude Stein’s flat tire, identified Dylan Thomas’ body in the morgue, shipped ballet shoes to CĂ©line’s wife after the war, was saved from falling off a cliff by Nabokov’s butterfly net, paid for Delmore Schwartz’s shrink and Pound’s legal defense, and smuggled Merton out of the monastery to go drinking." With friends like these, who needs a library?

Anyway, it turns out Laughlin actually has a poem about identifying Thomas' body, that I can't resist quoting in full:

Dylan

One of us had to make the official identification of Dylan's body at the Medical Examiner's Morgue
Brinnin and I tossed a coin and I lost
It was a crummy building in the hospital complex on First Avenue and the basement, smelling of formaldehyde, was a confusion of trolleys with rubber sheets covering bodies
A little old man in a rubber apron was in charge
He put on his glasses to read the name I had written on a slip of paper and looked around, trying to remember
He lifted one sheet. "Is this him?" It wasn't
Two or three more who weren't "Old Messy" of the pubs of Soho and Chelsea
Finally, we found him and he looked awful, all bloated
"Insult to the brain" was what it said on the autopsy report, too much booze for too many years
The old man sent me to a window to confirm the identification where there was a little girl about five feet high, struggling with the forms, using a pencil stub
She got me to write "Dylan" for her on the
form because she had never heard of
such a name and couldn't spell it
"What was his profession?" she asked
I told her he was a poet; she looked perplexed
"What's a poet?" she asked
I told her a poet was a person who wrote poems
She put that down, and that's what it says on the form:
Dylan Thomas - a poet (he wrote poems).

- James Laughlin

Andante con moto

Death recalibrates us.

For three days now I have watched people around me celebrate Thanksgiving and been indignant, thinking, "Don't they know that people are dying? How insensitive can they get?"

It occurs to me now that there is so much to be thankful for. This morning even the usual cliches - family, friends, poetry, health - are blessings to be treasured, blessings deeply felt. Because I am aware of how easily they could be taken away from me. Because they are so much more than I deserve.

Nothing has changed, of course, but this morning, for no reason and every reason, I am thankful to be alive.

***

So much to be thankful for.

At the concert yesterday, Andrey Boreyko conducts the Orchestra in a transcription of a Brahms Piano Quartet. Schoenberg's gorgeous orchestration leaves me laughing (silently) in my seat.

It is the first time since the attacks began I have been happy.

***

Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. 2nd Movement.

The strings open with menace. Fear marches, growling, onto stage.

Faced with such opposition the piano hesitates, then, gently, finds its voice. There is no anger in its response, no haste, just the tenderness of true sympathy, of sadness in the face of evil.

Again and again the orchestra interrupts the piano, overwhelms it. The chords brandished like weapons, demanding attention.

The piano does not surrender, is not stampeded. Instead those tentative first notes grow into a sustained meditation, calm but not helpless, balanced but not unmoved.

Eventually it is the orchestra that gives way, its force fading, a storm dying out.

In the privacy of the silence that follows, the piano erupts briefly into outrage, then, the anger shaken from its heart, returns to quietness.

The movement begins in fury, ends in grace.

Beauty endures.

***

Hysteria n. Morbidly excited condition; unhealthy emotion or excitement.

I need to snap out of this.

***

We are all parents to our own grief.

We have to let it go, eventually. Even though it always feels too soon.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Attacks

First, I hope you're okay, as is everyone you know.

Watching the coverage online for hours now, it strikes me that what we need more than anything else is the ability to respond to crises like this in an intelligent and organized way. With all these news reports of people having conversations with guests trapped inside the hotels coming in, I can't help wondering why no one seems to have thought of blocking communication in and out of the attack sites. If guests hiding in their rooms can call people on the outside, then presumably so can the attackers, which means they have both ready access to all information being publicly broadcast and the ability to coordinate with their fellow criminals in and around the city. It also means they have an unparalleled ability to spread disinformation (how do we know, for instance, that some of the reports coming in are not from the terrorists themselves?). I have to think this is a bad idea.

It's a particularly bad idea because it seems to me that most media channels are too busy trying to sensationalize the news to bother thinking through the consequences of what they're saying. It's not just that much of the coverage seems to be designed to amplify the general hysteria and panic, it's also that watching journalists describe what the police are doing or report on who is still trapped inside the hotels, I find myself wondering whether anyone's considered that at least some of that information might be helping the attackers.

Look, criminal acts like today's attacks are not going to go away. No matter what party is in power (and today's events probably made it more likely that will be the BJP - a pity), no matter how many civil liberties we suspend or how close to a police state we move, no matter how many arbitrary security procedures we put in place, this will happen again. What we can, and should, do is be better prepared for the next time it happens, so we can respond to it intelligently, instead of adopting what, from my admittedly distant perspective, looks suspiciously like the headless chicken approach.

UPDATE:

Given all the comments and incoming links to this post, I wanted to clarify that the primary point of this post was NOT to heap blame on the media. The key takeaway from the events of the last 24 hours for me is the desperate need to have better, more comprehensive plans, procedures and protocols to invoke in emergencies like this.

It would be nice, of course, if the media were to behave more responsibly. And it would be wonderful if some dynamic, hyper-competent leader were to take charge of the law enforcement response, thinking through all the angles in real-time. But expecting that either will automatically happen is unreasonable. Which is why we need to be better prepared for such eventualities in the future.

Look, television reporters have their own pressures and incentives. With the multiplicity of channels covering these events, responsibility is necessarily diffuse, and voluntary restraint would require a level of disinterested collaboration that is always going to be fragile. Even if n-1 channels self-censored, there would always be the 1 channel that would broadcast sensitive information just to get its ratings up. This doesn't excuse the media's behavior, doesn't make them less responsible for any and all negative consequences of their reporting; but it does mean that the media response we're seeing is predictable and unsurprising, and should have been planned for in advance.

By the same token, it's not surprising that spontaneous leadership in a crisis like this one is poor and spotty. You can't seriously expect someone caught up in the rush of events, overwhelmed by both information and emotion, to think of everything (or even of most things). Nor is it easy to actually implement a communication shut down unless there's a previously defined protocol to do so. To take just one example, assuming whoever's in charge of the government response realized that they need to black out all cellphone communication in the affected area. How would he go about doing that?

And it's not simply a question of whether live feeds have finally been disabled, or television input to the hotel eventually been cut. It's not even really a question of how much the information given out by the media helped the attackers this time around. The real question - to me, at least - is: if the government needed to clamp down on the media and cut communication channels in an emergency, could it do so quickly, efficiently and comprehensively? The answer, based on what we're currently seeing, is a frightening no. That's a vulnerability that future terrorist groups - groups far more sophisticated in their manipulation of information than the ones currently attacking Mumbai - could exploit to devastating advantage.

The point is - it would be a pity if our response to today's events was limited to a lot of hand-wringing about how the media are a bunch of sensation-addicted scavengers, or a lot of poorly informed speculation about the motives and backgrounds of the attackers (it doesn't really matter, does it? Today it's one cause, tomorrow it'll be another; terrorism is not a novel phenomenon, it's a standard manifestation of socio-political unrest). The questions we really need to be asking are: what can we do to be better prepared to respond to terrorist attacks like this one? How have other countries (Israel springs to mind) prepared for such situations? What can we learn from them? For that to happen, though, we're going to need to look carefully and objectively at today's response and study what we could have done differently, and do so without pointing fingers or getting angry or trying to ascribe blame. Because you can be certain that somewhere out there there's a group of criminals who are doing exactly that in preparation for their next assault.

UPDATE 2

Of all the idiotic nonsense to come out of the last 24 hours, all this talk about this attack being 'India's 9/11' has to come pretty much on top of the list. What does that mean anyway? If we absolutely have to compare these attacks to something else, surely a more appropriate comparison would be the FLN attacks in Algeria (combination shootings / bombings targeted at popular sites in affluent neighborhoods with a high proportion of foreigners) or the Munich attack (armed assailants attack a high visibility complex, take foreigners hostage) rather than 9/11?

Which is not to suggest that today's attack has anything to do with Black September or that the Deccan Mujahideen have anything in common with the Algerian Freedom movement, but rather that drawing random and inexplicable parallels between one act of terrorism and another is a futile and ridiculous exercise, especially when it's done purely for the sake of a sound-bite. Every major terrorist strike is an act by itself and must be understood on its own terms. Comparisons are not merely silly, they may also be misleading, because they create the illusion of understanding without helping us achieve any.

That said, if we are going to be saddled with this stupid India's 9/11 nonsense, we may as well draw what lessons we can from the analogy. In particular, we should draw the lesson that we must be suspicious of any and all claims that ascribe these attacks to foreign influence, that we must demand strong evidence for every alleged link to an outside terrorist group, that we must not allow ourselves to be fobbed off with poorly specified conspiracy theories, or be blinded to government incompetence by the bluster of their subsequent response. But most of all, that we must not allow ourselves to be taken over by the lethal combination of outrage and ignorance, must not allow our terror over today's events (and we should be afraid, very afraid) to translate into self-righteousness, prejudice, violence and the surrender of our principles and freedoms. Even if today's attack really is India's 9/11 (whatever that means) we must make sure that India's next seven years are not the US from 2001-2008.

And finally, can someone please explain to me where all this talk about these attacks being so sophisticated and well-coordinated is coming from? Arms sourcing aside, what's so hard about today's attack? You recruit a bunch of raw youths, give them, say, a week of basic training, hand them their weapons, tell them what building to hit and at roughly what time. What's the big deal? Every small-time dabbawalla in Bombay (what? you think Suketu Mehta is the only one who can come up with irrelevant local color?) handles greater coordination challenges on a daily basis.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A beautiful tree

"Give me half the gold in your treasury", the Sorcerer said, "and I will turn your death into a tree, so you may cut it down and burn it and so live forever."

At first it seemed the Emperor had not heard him. He sat unmoved on his throne, apparently undisturbed by the hush that had fallen over the court. Then, just as the Sorcerer was about to repeat the offer, he nodded. Yes.

Whispers swirled through the palace. What? Had the Emperor lost his mind, to believe this charlatan? Was he really going to give him half his gold? But the Emperor sat unmoving, serene, and because he was the Emperor, the coffers were opened, the gold counted, and before nightfall the Sorcerer was on his way, a long line of mules, weighed down with pack saddles, trailing behind him.

The next day a tree appeared in the Emperor's garden. A bare skeleton of a tree, gnarled and sprawling, its limbs twisted with age. This being winter, there were no leaves upon it, just a confusion of twigs, knitting the sky between them. Every morning the Emperor would stand before this tree, the Royal Gardener three steps behind him, waiting for the order to cut it down. But the order never came. The Emperor would simply stare at the tree, as though trying to read some meaning in the cuneiform of its branches, then turn away and go back inside.

Speculation about the fate of the tree spread through the kingdom. Did the Emperor not intend to have it cut down after all? Why had he paid so much gold for it then? In the first month after the tree appeared the Sorcerer returned twice to the palace, each time warning the Emperor that if the tree were not cut down it would take root, grow stronger, eventually prove fatal. The Emperor heard these warnings out, a bemused smile on his face, but said nothing.

When March came and the snow in the garden started to thaw, the Sorcerer returned a third time, telling the Emperor that he must destroy the tree at once, otherwise it would be too late. "Why won't you believe me?", he asked the Emperor, "I'm telling you the truth." "But I do believe you", the Emperor said, speaking to the Sorcerer for the first and only time.

The Sorcerer left with tears in his eyes.

The day the first leaves appeared on the tree, the Emperor fell desperately ill. Physicians and wise men were summoned from every corner of the kingdom, but none could do anything to help. The Sorcerer was sent for also, but he refused to come, saying it was out of his hands. Three weeks after the arrival of Spring, with the tree covered in flowers, and a pair of nightingales starting to build their nest in its branches, the Emperor died. On the day of his death, the Sorcerer received a note, written in the Imperial hand. It said: "Thank you. It was a beautiful tree."

The official mourning for the dead Emperor lasted 33 days. On the 34th day the Sorcerer was brought to the public square, accused of devising the Emperor's death, found guilty and executed. They say he made no attempt to save himself. His body was hacked to pieces, then burnt.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A course in true love

"The course of true love never did run smooth" Shakespeare tells us.

Is this an empirical observation or a theoretical one? Is it possible to conceive of a love that would both be true and run a smooth course? Or could it be that 'true'-ness of love depends upon the course being unsmooth? And not only in the sense of observability - so that it is impossible to distinguish between love true and untrue till it is put to the test - nor even in a superpositional sense with love, like Schrodinger's cat, being both true and untrue until its path roughens. No, could it be that it is only through being thwarted that love becomes true? That the translation of desire into love requires interference, the emotion not diffused but filtered, winnowed, the more exacting process generating an output more exact? Could it be that the lust, far from being perjured till action, is in fact made more truthful by being more abstract, that being never enjoyed it is never despised? Could it be, in short, that love is only true until it is achieved?

Not that true love is imaginary, you understand, but that only imagined love is true.

[Have been reading Anne Carson's brilliant Eros the Bittersweet, in case you're wondering. Oh, and see also Browning]

Table for one

The old man sits at the table across from me, his newspaper folded to a neat quarter page and laid flat on the table, so he can read while he eats. I can't make out from here what section he's reading, but he seems absorbed in it, never looking up to observe his surroundings, barely glancing at his food as he lifts it mechanically to his mouth, pausing only to turn the paper over, the fork placed back on the plate for an instant, then picked up again.

If he did look up for a moment, if he happened to look this way, would I acknowledge his gaze, perhaps smile at him? No. I wouldn't want to meet his eyes, wouldn't want him to think I had been staring. I would look down to my book, pretend to read, wondering all the time whether he'd gone back to his paper, whether it was safe to look up.

Yet I am grateful for his presence here, grateful that he too has come out on this cold Sunday afternoon to this shabby chinese restaurant to have lunch by himself. Grateful because his being here means I am less alone in being alone.

[see also]

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Islands

No one came.

He rang the bell for almost an hour, his body swaying back and forth against the rope, a conversation with gravity, weight and counterweight. Yet no one stopped by to ask what had happened or who it was for.

Had it come to this, then? Exhausted, he climbed up to the bell-tower, stood looking down on the town, one hand resting against the surface of the great bell. Watched the streets emerge from the morning mist, the roofs of the houses like dull islands in a sea of swirling gray.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The great seduction

Has there ever been a seduction to match Mozart's Don Giovanni?

Mozart does everything in his power to make his protagonist look bad - the man is a murderer, a rapist, a sadist and a sociopath; there is nothing to excuse his villainy - and then, against what should be our implacable judgment, he wins us over to the man's side by force of music alone. How can we fault Elvira for being seduced by him when we ourselves sit chuckling at his exploits - exploits whose resultant misery we have heard expressed, in the most soulful terms the human voice is capable of, a mere half hour ago?

And who but Mozart could make us admire a man condemned to an eternity in the torments of hell? For this is Don Giovanni's (and Mozart's) greatest seduction, his final revenge: that as the curtain comes down on the pious voices of Anna, Ottavio, Elvira, Zerlina, Masetto and Leporello condemning the villain to perdition, it is that very villain's voice we miss. For who would not rather be the tormented yet defiant Don, than these insufferable goody two-shoes with their proper, anemic lives?

Bad writing

"At last, she could no longer control the world around her, her five senses seemed to break free and she wasn't strong enough to hold on to them. As if struck by a sacred bolt of lightning, she unleashed them, and the world, the seagulls, the taste of salt, the hard earth, the smell of the sea, the clouds, all disappeared, and in their place appeared a vast gold light, which grew and grew until it touched the most distant star in the galaxy."

That's Paulo Coelho, in an extract that's nominated for the Literary Review's Bad Sex award. Personally, I think it's patently unfair to let Coelho be in contention for any bad writing award - these awards should be restricted to people who are amateurs at bad writing.

Oh, and speaking of 'literary' awards, the results of the Caferati-Live Journal Contest are out. With the single exception of the amruta patil story (which is merely overwrought) the rest of the winners are uniformly awful, the shoddy writing being matched only be the cluelessness of the judges. You're probably better off reading the bad sex nominees.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Triangle with two points

He envies me for being with you when you died.

I envy him for not knowing how that felt.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Kick of Joy in the Universe

"So when people say that poetry is merely a luxury for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn't be read much at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language - and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers - a language powerful enough to say how it is.

Let's not confuse this with realism. The power does not lie directly with the choice of subject or its social relevance - if it did, then everything not about our own contemporary situation would be academic to us, and all the art of the past would be a mental museum. Art lasts because it gives us a language for our inner reality, and that is not a private hieroglyph; it is a connection across time to all those others who have suffered and failed, found happiness, lost it, faced death, ruin, struggled, survived, known the night-hours of inconsolable pain."

- Jeanette Winterson on T.S. Eliot


Thursday, November 13, 2008

A sad tale's best for winter

Just got back from a performance of Winter's Tale. Such a strange play: half Euripidean tragedy, half pastoral farce - the whole thing capped by that terrible, terrible ending, the entire final act making me squirm in my seat.

It's always seemed to me that if you took the first half of Winter's Tale and the second half of Pericles you'd have one genuinely good play. And it wouldn't be hard to do, either - the characters are more or less the same - just a few name changes, a slight tweaking of the plot (maybe the shepherd who finds Perdita - no, Mariana, so much sweeter a name - could sell her to a brothel when she came of age - this is Bohemia after all - where Florizel could find her) and Polixenes your uncle!

Still, even a play as relatively mediocre as the Winter's Tale has its moments. My personal favorite is the two lines in Act III Scene 2 where Leontes, faced with the oracle, proclaims it false and calls for the trial to proceed. It's a genuinely shocking moment, if only because you've been expecting that this is where the scales shall fall from Leontes' eyes, and his sudden outburst offers the possibility that perhaps that won't happen, that perhaps Leontes really shall go on, defying both the gods and dramatic necessity. I may be alone in thinking this, but I've always wished that Shakespeare had carried through on this, had subverted all the laws of Tragedy (which he's going to do anyway, with that sheepish fourth Act) and let the play turn darker and darker, Leontes growing more and more evil, eventually dying (or more likely being killed) without ever seeing the folly of his beliefs. Now that would have been a truly great play.

The other marvellous thing about Winter's Tale is the role of Paulina, easily the most interesting character in the play, and one of Shakespeare's most criminally overlooked heroines. I can't think of another female character in all of Shakespeare's plays who is as independent, as intelligent, or as resolutely asexual. It's fascinating that Shakespeare chooses to make the one person with the strength of character to stand up to Leontes a woman - a woman, moreover, who is her own person, holds her own ground without help from or need of a man, and emerges, by the end, as both the noblest and most sensible person in the play. All of which makes her, as women in Shakespeare go, unique.

There's also, of course, poor Antigonus - he of the 'exit pursued by bear' fame - who I've always felt gets treated most unfairly. All the poor guy is doing is following orders, both from his master and from the spirit of Hermoine, and yet he alone, of all the people in the play, meets a cruel and ignoble death. And what a death! Torn to pieces by a savage bear: "how the bear tore out his shoulder-bone, how he cried to me for help...how the poor gentleman roared and the bear mocked him". And all so Shakespeare can pair up Paulina and Camillo in the final scene (a plot twist I confess I'd completely forgotten). Talk about a raw deal.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Pied Beauty

Nothing persuades us of God's death more eloquently than the world's splendor. No being, however supernatural, could create such beauty and live.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

His indifference...

...is entirely sincere. No one else brings such conviction to the shrug of a shoulder.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Balloons

"If it were done when 'tis done then 'twere well it were done quickly."

- William Shakespeare

She takes them out to the balcony, dragging them along by the strings tied to their necks. Away from the noise and warmth of the party they seem paler, emptier, their skins vulnerable to the city's indifference. What seemed like light-hearted optimism is revealed as a desperate eagerness to please.

For a moment, charmed by their helplessness, she considers letting them go, letting them float away above the rooftops, lose themselves in the evening sky. Then she remembers what happened last year. How one of them ended up perching in the tree opposite, how it stayed there for two days, becoming the constant focus of her daughter's three year old attention. How much her daughter cried the morning it was gone.

This time she will make sure. She takes the scissors from her pocket, checks that her daughter is not around, that she is still in the other room opening her presents; then proceeds to puncture them, her scissors pecking hurriedly at their tiny flock. They burst easily enough: their death a soundless explosion, a small, grateful gasp. Yet she cannot help feel guilty as she pockets the scissors, gathers up the string. A necklace of rubber foreskins, of withered flowers. She bunches them all together, closes her fist around them. She will place them at the very bottom of the garbage, where they will not be seen.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Top Brass

I've probably said this before, but the Philadelphia Orchestra really does have the most exquisite brass and woodwind sections - the sheer glory of which was on full display tonight as the Orchestra gave a truly stirring rendition of Mahler's 5th under the inspired baton of Michael Tilson Thomas. That duet between horn and cello in the third movement brought tears to my eyes, and it was all I could to keep from laughing out loud at the opening of the fifth movement - the instruments bantering amongst each other, then soaring triumphantly into song.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

November 5th 2008

What is untrue may still be beautiful:
hope, for instance, or a sense of choice.

Beautiful to walk the streets this morning
with the leaves changing color, to hear them

murmur with one voice and know
the light will never be the same again;

beautiful to share in this sudden lightness,
to wander weightless as a dream

through the new woken air; beautiful
to feel the muscle of belief

at work in the world, for though our hope
be foolish it is not foolish to hope,

but human, necessary, and to feel capable
of that is already to be changed.

Disappointment is inevitable.
Time must be dealt with, winter faced.

But something of this day may remain
to sustain us, some ember of warmth

from a season of glory, the joy
of knowing that our voices,

however small, however shaken,
have finally been heard.

And now for the bad news

While Day Falstaff is all busy celebrating the Obama victory, Night Falstaff feels honor-bound to point out that it's turning out to be a bad night for gay rights. Both Arizona Proposition 102 (which limits marriage to heterosexual couples) and Arkansas Initiative 1 (which effectively prohibits gay couples from adopting children) were passed tonight, and Florida Amendment 2 (ban on gay marriage) seems all set to go through as well, with 62% support (it requires 60%) and 99% reporting.

As of this writing California Proposition 8 still hangs in the balance - with the vote being 52% in favor of banning gay marriage with 47% reporting. Let's hope that, at least, doesn't go through. It would be a sad thing indeed if such a glorious moment for racial equality were to be accompanied by an increase in discrimination based on sexual preference.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

At Last

More proof that the gods have a sick sense of humor

I'm sitting in front of my computer screen, five different websites open, obsessively updating the election results to see what the latest projections are. I decide I'm overdoing it. I need to calm down. Music - that's the thing. Some nice, relaxing jazz. I pop a CD into my stereo system. Press play.

Lester Young plays 'Indiana'

It's going to be a long night.

Monday, November 03, 2008

BAP 2008

Have been reading the Best American Poetry 2008 (which should really be called Some Nice-ish American Poetry 2008). My favorites:

Ciaran Berry, Electrocuting an Elephant

Robert Hass, I am your waiter tonight and my name is Dmitri (a fairly uninspired reading of which can be heard here, at 47:45)

Bob Hicok, O my pa-pa

Susan Mitchell, Ritual

Ron Padgett, Method, or Kenneth Koch (which I can't find online, alas, but see Padgett's other poems in The Sienese Shredder - a journal I'll confess I'd never heard of before)

Alberto Rios, The Rain that Falls Here

John Rybicki, Three Lanterns

Alan Sullivan, Divide and Conquer

***

The thing that always strikes me about the BAP is how much American Poetry as defined by it as an old person's game. Here's the age distribution of the 75 poets appearing in the 2008 volume:

Under 30: 2
30 - 35: 5
35 - 40: 8
40 - 45: 3
45 - 50: 6
50 - 55: 6
55 - 60: 18
60 - 65: 9
65 - 70: 7
70 - 75: 5
Over 75: 6

Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. Some of the people in that 55-60 bracket are among my favorite poets writing today. But I can't help feeling that this would be a more exciting franchise if it published more work by younger poets, even at the cost of leaving some of the old reliables out. If nothing else, it would make the book more useful.

A Tale of Two Ads / At Stake - 2

Overheard in Philly this weekend:

Ad 1: A woman discusses which candidate is the right choice for women. Compares and contrasts McCain and Obama's policies - pointing out that Obama offers tax relief for working women and is pro-choice while McCain opposes equal pay for women and wants to take away their right to choose. Therefore arrives at conclusion that Obama is the better choice.

Ad 2: A man says that ever since he heard Obama talk about bitter people clinging to guns and religion he's known that he (Obama) just doesn't get 'us'. Because "We love our God. And we love our guns that have been handed down to us by our grandfathers." And since Obama doesn't understand this, you should vote for McCain. [Note that nothing is actually said about McCain - you should vote for him purely because he's not Obama]

And there you have it.

With the election less than 24 hours away (for which, thank FSM! I don't think I can take another week of this) it seems to me that what is at stake in this election is not just the future of US government policy, but also the nature of campaigning in US elections to come. What is horrifying to me about the prospect of a McCain-Palin win (unlikely as it may seem) is that a victory for them now would be a victory for a campaign run on lies, misdirection, character assassination and appeals to bigotry; a victory that would make the Rove-ian playbook the standard for decades to come. If Obama loses this one, who in his right mind is ever going to try fighting an election on issues or substantive arguments again?

Remember the old Lincoln saw about not being able to fool all of the people all of the time? The catch with that assertion has always been that you don't need to fool all of the people all of the time - you just need to fool enough of the people enough of the time. And if McCain does manage to win tomorrow then that is exactly what the GOP will have done [1].

Here's hoping that doesn't happen.

***

Meanwhile, the award for the WTF statement of the day goes to Doug Mackinnon, and his preemptive griping about media bias:

"This person reasoned that the pressure within the news business to diversify and be politically correct means more minorities, women and young people are being hired. And young and ethnically diverse reporters and editors go easier on candidates who look more like them, are closer to their age or represent their ideal of a presidential candidate."

This is ridiculous at so many levels I don't know where to start. First, can we assume that before the news business was under pressure "to diversify and be politically correct", they only hired old people? Second, can we take it that going easy on people they like is a characteristic only of young and ethnically diverse reporters - middle-aged white men, by contrast, are never biased? Third, if young people, women and minorities (in other words everyone but old white men) are all predisposed to like Obama, mightn't that have something to do with his popularity, rather than 'media bias'? Fourth, are we to assume that the way to correct the liberal media bias is for newspapers to stop hiring young and ethnically diverse reporters and editors? Fifth, can we assume that the only reason the news business would hire women, minorities or young people is to be politically correct, since these groups couldn't possibly have anything worthwhile to contribute otherwise. And finally, notice Mr. Mackinnon's extreme weasliness of putting this idea out there by ascribing it to someone else and not bothering to comment on whether he agrees / disagrees.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

My Life: The Movie

Do you ever get the feeling that living your life is like making a movie?

And I don't mean just in the oh-my-god-my-life-is-straight-out-of-a-Woody-Allen-script kind of way. I mean that so much of what we call living feels like mere set-up, doesn't it? All this hectic activity, all this busy preparation - props, casting, costumes, dialog, endless planning, repeated rehearsals - all leading up to that one breathless moment when the lights go up and the noise shuts down and you finally feel like you're really, truly alive.

A moment that, if you're lucky, will be good enough to keep.

I saw the best minds...

...of my generation destroyed by sanity. Unable to survive, being serious and sober, what the world was really like.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

State of the Union

In his Op-Ed column today, Frank Rich talks about Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, using it to discuss just what an Obama presidency would mean. Reading his column reminded me, however, of another Tracy-Hepburn film, one that seems even more relevant to this election - Frank Capra's State of the Union (1948). It's a movie about a tough-minded, independent, principled flying ace-cum-industrialist who is persuaded (in a glorious performance by Angela Lansbury - one of the few times in memory that an actress has come close to upstaging Hepburn in a film) to enter the primaries as a candidate for Republican nominee for President. He is picked because he is an outsider, even a maverick, someone who stands apart from the dirty politics of the time, and may therefore be the moribund GOP's best shot at winning the White House.

For a while Grant Matthews (the character Tracy plays) is all driven and idealistic (see clip here) - even suggesting the formation of a United States of the World (league of democracies anyone?). But pretty soon he comes under the control of the party political hacks: he starts to toe the party line, he begins to worry about vote banks and delegate counts, and forgets all the reasons he agreed to run for President in the first place. And those who had once thought well of him, who had thought him both genuine and honest, shake their heads in dismay and dismiss him as yet another politician.

Sound familiar?

The scary thing about State of the Union is not just the parallels between the Matthews campaign and the McCain one, but the fact that the issues Matthews talks about in the movie - healthcare, employment, taxes, the possibility of depression, Russia, world peace, rich vs. poor - are issues that could have come straight out this year's presidential debates. The more things change...

P.S. I should say, for the record, that I don't think State of the Union is a particularly great film. As a Tracy-Hepburn collaboration the most that can be said for it is that it's marginally better than, say, Pat and Mike; and while it has some nice Capra-esque touches (the Spike McManus character, for one), it's a little too weighed down by Capra's political views. The biggest problem with the film, I think, is that Hepburn is badly miscast. There are many things Hepburn is extraordinarily good at, but playing a loving but helpless wife is not one of them (someone like Joan Fontaine - that milksop to end all milksops - would have been so much better).

Friday, October 31, 2008

So much for parenthood

"Pretty much no matter how you test it, children make us less happy. The evidence isn’t just from diary studies; surveys of marital satisfaction show that couples tend to start off happy, get less happy when they have kids, and become happy again only once the kids leave the house. As the psychologist Daniel Gilbert puts it, “Despite what we read in the popular press, the only known symptom of ‘empty-nest syndrome’ is increased smiling.” So why do people believe that children give them so much pleasure? Gilbert sees it as an illusion, a failure of affective forecasting. Society’s needs are served when people believe that having children is a good thing, so we are deluged with images and stories about how wonderful kids are. We think they make us happy, though they actually don’t."


That's Paul Bloom in the November issue of the Atlantic.

Personally, I have several reservations about the article - partly because it seems to me that Bloom is stretching a lot of potentially unrelated research to fit his theory (I'm not sure, for instance, how the Milgram obedience studies "support the view that all of us contain many selves"); partly because the article doesn't sufficiently distinguish, in my opinion, between measures of central tendency and variation across the population (presumably there are people who are genuinely happy about having kids - I'd even hazard a guess that the extent of happiness / unhappiness associated with being a parent varies by gender, age and economic class); and partly because I would have liked to see a clearer definition of happiness (what does it mean, exactly, to be unhappy even though you think you're happy). But hey, who am I to argue with a professor of Psychology at Yale, particularly one who's basically saying what I've always suspected - that this whole celebration of parenthood thing is a gigantic swindle meant to reduce cognitive dissonance for people who've been suckered into having kids.

The November issue also includes a surprisingly sensible piece on blogging by Andrew Sullivan, but that's a whole other post.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Home

"That odd capacity for destitution, as if by nature we ought to have so much more than nature gives us. As if we are shockingly unclothed when we lack the complacencies of ordinary life. In destitution, even of feeling or purpose, a human being is more hauntingly human and vulnerable to kindnesses because there is the sense that things should be otherwise, and then the thought of what is wanting and what alleviation would be, and how the soul should be put at ease, restored. At home. But the soul finds its own home if it ever has a home at all."

- Marilynne Robinson, Home

I know it's only the end of October, but I think I can say without fear of contradiction that Marilynne Robinson's Home is my pick for book of the year. Not since Faulkner has prose been this pristinely beautiful, so mercilessly gentle, so Old Testament like in the starkness and weight of its sorrow. Every page of this book is at once an act of glory and an act of grace, of language at its most exquisite, aching with what remains unspoken. It's a book that deserves not so much to be read, as to be contemplated, meditated on.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

More evidence that the NY Times cannot cover India

Will someone please tell me why the NY Times finds it so hard to find people to write about India? I mean, okay, so maybe we're not a country brimming with intellectuals, but surely there are enough people out there who can write a sensible, cogent op-ed piece without indulging in timeworn cliches or spinning off on some bizarre tangent. Why then do we need to be subjected to tripe like this op-ed piece by Tunku Vardarajan?

My favorite bit: "devout Hindus — many of them, no doubt, rocket scientists —". Did you know that many devout Hindus are rocket scientists (is there some new definition of many out there that considers a fraction of 1% to be many?)? Not to mention that all Indians are apparently Hindus and all Hindus are apparently moon worshippers. Oh, and we're all "astrology-obsessed". Tchah!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A quick sharp scratch

Two drinks later, they step out of the bar and discover it's raining. He goes to fetch the car. She stands in the doorway, hands snuggled into her pockets, drawing her coat tight. When did it get so cold?

A hand's breadth away from her, the run-off from the awning falls in a steady stream. Caught in the headlights of a passing cab, the drops of rainwater look like sparks. She remembers that it's Diwali today (or yesterday - is it midnight already?). She'd meant to call her parents. Well, too late now.

It's been three years since she moved to this country, but there's a part of her that's still surprised by how the festivals of her childhood pass unnoticed. Diwali, Holi - words that once meant weeks of anticipation, days of giddy excitement, have become items on her calendar, less important than meetings, more easily missed. It's as though the first contact with this different world had shrunk them, the way the rain shrinks a beloved sweater, until it's too small to wear. What was once essential becomes a curiosity.

She gives a mental shrug. She's romanticizing again. It's ridiculous for her to feel nostalgic about this, she who'd always hated Diwali - the smoke and noise of it, the endless stream of relatives, the sense of forced revelry. So much nicer to spend the evening the way she just had. She ought to be grateful.

What's taking him so long? She may as well have a cigarette while she waits. She pulls one out, puts it between her lips, reaches into her pocket for the lighter. After she lights up, she holds the lighter open for an instant, the flame still shielded by her palm, vivid and helpless in the alien night. Then she puts it safely away.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

More evidence that great minds think alike

Remember this story?

Well, here is the man himself, bringing Ella on stage at the Hollywood Bowl in 1956:

"Now we're going to do one of the numbers, one of the first recordings we did there, an old good one called 'You won't be sausage-fried', I mean, 'You won't be satisfied' *chuckles*"
Okay, okay, so I know it's a really lame joke. But, hey, if it's good enough for ol' Satchmo, it's good enough for me.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Undecided

"I think of being on an airplane. The flight attendant comes down the aisle with her food cart and, eventually, parks it beside my seat. “Can I interest you in the chicken?” she asks. “Or would you prefer the platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it?”

To be undecided in this election is to pause for a moment and then ask how the chicken is cooked."

Personally, I'm still trying to decide whether I like David Sedaris' new piece in the New Yorker, but I figured I may as well point you to it anyway.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Late Beethoven

No one deserved it more than he did. No one fought harder, or more fiercely, or against greater odds.

No one saw as clearly that triumph is a demon. That fury sings. That beauty, at its heart, is an act of will.

No one learnt at greater cost how wild perfection is, how savage - how it destroys those who nurse it, must be tamed by brute force.

And yet, listening to these final works - these quartets with their voices that meditate on silence, these sonatas where the piano is an animal set free - is it possible not to envy him? Envy him neither his suffering nor his glory, but what lies beyond both - the knowledge that moves beneath these pieces, informs them, inspires them. The sure-footed intuition of a mind at peace.

We may never be old enough for this music. We may not live so long, or so intensely. But it comforts us to know such harmony is possible: a season of soft promises, of beauty both ripe and bare.